In the last decade, Western Carolina University has undergone a significant transformation. We have cut the ribbon on a state-of-the-art Health and Human Sciences Building and celebrated the opening of the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, which would later be named one of “The 25 Most Amazing University Performing Arts Centers” in the country. We have opened new residence and dining halls, expanded programs in engineering and the health sciences, and strengthened and updated our leading curriculum in education, business, and the arts. Our Honors College has surfaced as a national leader in undergraduate research, and the Carnegie Foundation has recognized WCU as a community-engaged institution for its commitment to regional service and partnerships. The student body has soared to surpass 10,000 total students.
Yet still, the principles on which Western Carolina was founded more than 125 years ago hold steady. This institution was built to serve a region set apart from the rest of the state by terrain that limits connectivity even today. WCU began as a place to educate the people who would lead this region forward. That has not changed. In all that we do – our recruitment, our academic offerings, our course design, our student life programming – we are purposeful in our effort to prepare students for leadership roles in the region and the state.
The result of our efforts is a statewide economic impact of almost $1 billion annually, with more than $510 million remaining in the state’s 10 westernmost counties.
The nature of our business is change. The pace of this change is not waning but rather continuing to gain momentum as we look ahead, and we must resolve to outpace it.
Demographics are shifting: the youth population is climbing in large metro areas while stagnating in our region. Each freshman class is increasingly more diverse and increasingly more global. We must offer a unique educational environment that welcomes a diverse population and draws students out of the urban centers. This is critical to the economic health of our region and state.
Meanwhile, this global generation is composed of digital natives who have not known a day in which they did not carry a computer in their pockets. We are teaching in an era of technology we could not have imagined even 10 years ago, and we have to stay ahead of those changes in order to prepare our students for jobs our society has not yet invented.
We know the economic growth in Western North Carolina necessitates recruiting high-achieving students from growing urban markets to WCU so we can fulfill our mission of driving development in the region. To meet that goal, we must innovate at every turn. The institutions that dare to create and innovate will, in fact, be the ones that thrive. Within our current environment, the failure to thrive is the ultimate risk we face – not for ourselves, but for our students and our state.
Western Carolina University’s significant impact on North Carolina is rooted in our commitment to providing an accessible education to the people of our region and state. We are proud to be one of the most affordable regional comprehensive institutions in the University of North Carolina system. Despite our affordability, or perhaps in some ways because of it, the vast need on our campus is daunting.
During the 2014-15 academic year, 3,896 undergraduate students from North Carolina had an expected family contribution of $5,157 or less, the upper limit to qualify for Pell grants. Their combined total financial need was $45.4 million with roughly $25.3 million of that figure, or slightly more than half, being met through grant funding. This left roughly $20.1 million, or an average of $5,164 per student, in unmet need. These statistics are sobering but still do not represent the full picture of need given that roughly 81 percent of enrolled students qualified for financial assistance, often in the form of student loans. In the same year, WCU students and their families assumed $63.3 million in student loan debt.
Yet despite such a daunting need, WCU remains one of the few universities in the UNC system that does not have a scholarship program devoted exclusively to support students in need. If we intend to keep our promise of changing lives and enhancing communities, we must be committed to keeping our doors open to all students who are prepared for the rigors of a college education regardless of their background or family’s circumstances. A college education has a broad and lasting impact on those students, their families, and their home communities. They become leaders in their own networks, clearing a path for others to follow.
There comes a time in life when our accomplishments are measured not by what we have achieved ourselves but by what we have inspired others to achieve. Some call it a legacy.
In large part, the same holds true for a university. Ultimately, our mission is to teach, to support, and to inspire our students to greatness. Our success is manifest in the success our graduates achieve. To that end, our institutional reputation, our impact on the region and the state, our ambition for growth, and our ability to fully reach our vision depend on our aptitude for recruiting high-achieving students and enabling their study, research, and innovation.
Our Honors College provides an incredible framework to accomplish this task. The first of its kind in the UNC system, the Honors College initially provided WCU with a huge competitive advantage. It drove the recruitment of star students and supported the strengthening of some of WCU’s most competitive and accomplished programs. It led WCU to national recognition as a leader in undergraduate research. However, WCU is quickly losing its competitive advantage because of a lack of scholarship support for top students. WCU is one of the few institutions in the UNC system that does not offer a single full-ride, merit-based scholarship. In the fall of 2015, WCU saw this demonstrated in the growing number of sought-after students who simply turned us down, resulting in a smaller-than-expected freshman enrollment for the first time in three years. In a survey of prospective students who withdrew their WCU application after being admitted, 62 percent said they may have enrolled at WCU if they had been offered scholarship support.
When our athletics coaches and leadership sit down with recruits, they aren’t looking just for great players. They are looking for students who bring the same determination and inspiration to the classroom that they bring to the game – students who will carry their passion for and commitment to success all the way to graduation and beyond. Students such as these fuel our teams and our campus with a championship spirit that is palpable and contagious. The competition for recruiting these sought-after scholar-athletes is steep.
Scholarships, in the world of college athletics, have become an expected norm. If you want the best, a fully funded scholarship is a minimum requirement, and WCU falls $3.3 million short of the ability to fully fund our 16 athletic programs to NCAA-allowed maximum levels every year. We must raise significant money to fund an endowment that will provide substantially more scholarship dollars annually. This ties directly back to performance on the field. In 2014-15, WCU football ranked fourth in the conference for scholarship support and finished second in competition. WCU baseball ranked seventh for scholarships and finished seventh. We could go on, but you get the picture.
Beyond the scholarship need, WCU is desperately lacking in adequate facility space. Topping that list is an indoor practice facility for all sports. WCU has designed a plan for not just meeting that need but for constructing a multi-use building that will house an indoor practice field, strength and conditioning center, and hospitality area for university functions. It will give us the competitive advantage we need to move from the bottom to the top in the Southern Conference in terms of facilities.
When you ask Western Carolina University students what makes their WCU experience special, the answer takes many forms but often comes back to the same theme: they talk about the extraordinary community of support that is transforming who they will become in life. Our alumni tell similar stories. We often think of that supportive community as including fellow students, faculty, coaches, student support staff, even the cashier at the dining hall or the tech staff at the library. The foundation, however, of the WCU community of support is composed of our donors.
Only you can provide our students with the resources that will make the difference between giving up or moving ahead. Only you can demonstrate to our high-achieving students WCU’s real commitment to their success by clearing the financial hurdles to their ambitious pursuits. Only you can be the champion who will inspire our student-athletes to strive for excellence on the field and off. Only you can make Western Carolina the top choice for the most sought-after students, helping us to recruit and train leaders who will transform our region. Only you can provide Western Carolina with the support that is so desperately and urgently needed in order to reach our institutional potential.
We are a university community that changes lives, and that starts with you. Lead the way.